AROUND THE BLOCK - EMusician

AROUND THE BLOCK

From working with Kurtis Blow as a young kid to Amy Winehouse, Nas and Lalo Schifrin into his 30s, Salaam Remi has amassed major amounts of gear, a long discography and a whole lot of studio science
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“I like being a muse to artists,” Salaam Remi says. “My own issue is, what do I actually sound like?” It's a new chapter for Remi, the 35-year-old producer long under the radar but with an extensive discography that's impressive both in breadth and stature: The Fugees, Nas, Amy Winehouse, Lauren Hill, Sade, Ricky Martin, Brand Nubian, Sting, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, and the list goes on.

He's recently put the finishing touches on the Rush Hour 3 score and the soundtrack single “Less Than an Hour,” a duet featuring Nas' assertive flow and Cee-Lo's soulful vocals over the dramatic backdrop of a 100-piece orchestra recorded at Atlantis Studios in Los Angeles. The track kicks off with a deep bass and sultry female French vocals, and Cee-Lo's yearning voice sets the tone for Nas' deep and punchy verses, leading to the forlorn choral reprise, “I have less than an hour.” The song is whimsical, haunting and uptempo. It's his first film-scoring opportunity, a direction he hopes to develop. For Remi, the process of working with a director and a film crew, he's realized, is similar to working with marquee artists. In both cases, he is an interpreter who feeds off of the energy and creativity around him.

“I'm not really an upfront person. I get so much more out of watching someone before they watch me,” Remi says in a deep baritone voice. “I'm trying to figure out what's different about this artist from the rest of the world. That's my unique process I go through every day.”

Rock, jazz, hip-hop and reggae artists clamor equally for a textured Remi beat. He travels from his home-base recording studio in Miami to L.A. and London, recording constantly for his own Boom Tunes label released via iTunes portals. Even on his own label, his sound and style is diverse — spanning from danceable dub and aggressive hip-hop to cool jazz. He's concentrating on new artists such as reggae singer David Sean, UK ska-rock artist Nick Harrison and Southern funk act Crunkadelic.

COMING OF THE JAZZ AGE

It's been a winding road to Hollywood and the acclaim and respect that come with it, but it's been one rooted in rich musical lineage. “Hip-hop for me is the generation I grew up in,” he says, remembering his New York City youth. But Remi's introduction to hip-hop and music in general was far more personal. Remi's musician and studio-engineer father, Van Gibbs, was his initial connection to the industry. Gibbs performed with Harry Belafonte and arranged Taana Gardner's “Heartbeat.” “Being around the Kurtis Blow days, watching the Fat Boys in the studio, I am as much as an old-schooler as anybody can be,” Remi says.

Remi actually played keyboards for Kurtis Blow on 1986's “Kingdom Blow,” a record his father produced. “I wouldn't even call myself a keyboard player to a keyboard player,” Remi insists. “I actually played drums first. Elvin Jones, the jazz drummer, made me a drum set. I had a full drum set when I was three years old.” Childhood included jam sessions with his dad and uncles, who were musicians and urged him to play along. Much like his son would become, Van Gibbs was broad in his musical outreach. Remi's father was the first person to work with Doug E. Fresh in the studio. “He put together a contest that the Fat Boys won to get their deal, and [he also produced] Kurtis Blow's album,” Remi recalls. “That's how I was introduced to those situations.”

Yet, Remi had to earn his production stripes in his own right. “When I first started producing hip-hop, I was sampling a whole lot, and my father would call me ‘Looper Vandross,’ saying pretty much that I needed to play music, since I was looping everything. What I was missing was the engineering aspect and the sonic aspect.” So he began exploring the nuances of recordings from different eras, studying the compositions and techniques used in the James Brown records that added much of the vibe and flavor of early hip-hop. He learned to play certain instruments on top of his samples, which led to a complete studio. At the core of it were pieces he retrieved from Soundworks, which was located below Studio 54, including an SSL board, Vintage Neve Pultec EQs, LA-2A and 1176 compressors and EMT 140 plate reverbs. These pieces helped him recapture the sound Teddy Riley and Shep Pettibone used in the '80s. Remi was gaining a name as a producer, but The Fugees' “Nappy Heads” and “Fu-Gee-La” singles provided his critical breakthrough. He was also involved in Lauren Hill's solo success.

Remi's ear extended to the reggae explosion, and he was instrumental in working with dancehall artists. And he was able to get even with the lack of credit his father received for the Gardner hit when he sampled “Heartbeat” for Ini Komoze's “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” which became a Billboard smash hit in 1994. “It's something my dad had come up with that he wasn't credited properly for, so my sample clearance came way cheaper since they knew they owed him,” he says with a chuckle.

Teaming up with Nas (whose father is Olu Dara) proved a potent mix for both sons of jazzmen. When Remi made hits like “Made You Look” (from God's Son [Sony, 2002]) for Nas, he was striving for a deliberate feel that comes from his study of time period. “With Nas, the beats come as a result of our conversations. We're really tight, and we talk a lot. In between albums, I am reminding him of what he wanted to say. With ‘Made You Look,’ he said he wanted to make something that felt like '87 in the park.”

The song features the raucous “Bravehearts” cry in the background and Nas at his most direct and deliberate. “He also knows and understands breakbeats with a lot of music behind them and how to use his vocals and his whole flow to control the beat. A lot of younger artists I've found want to use those tracks, but when it's time for them to get over, they have to yell and jump all over the place. I thought when Nas heard that track he would be very hyper, but actually, he laid back and did a very quiet, Rakim-like flow. His approach on it made it work. If it had energy, it would have been nice, but it would have played out quicker.”

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BEATS AND SPACES

Remi spent the bulk of his career in New York until 9/11, which was the precursor to leaving the city. Seeking change, he moved his operation to Florida. “My main studio is in Miami in my home,” he says. “Every room in my house has something musical. I have ridiculous amounts of equipment. I call my house ‘Instrument Zoo.''”

On the road, he seeks out specific gear to re-create a working studio. “Drumwise, I have it ready for the MPC4000 because I've been able to sync it up to my laptop,” Remi says. “That's my most fluent drum machine, the pinnacle of MPCs. I get a Yamaha Motif because it has a variable amount of sounds that are pretty clean.” He uses a host of bass and electric guitars and amps, as well.

Remi's holding out to convert completely to computer-based programming but uses Digidesign Pro Tools 7.3 for his mixes. “I'm not into doing everything in the computer at this point,” he says. “When I'm traveling, it's ease of use; my laptop is a big part of my day because I'm always looking at it.”

He knows he will make the change to all computers when technology demands it. “I have ReCycle and Reason,” Remi says. “I haven't made a record off of Reason, but I've done little doodles. I've recorded a couple records in Logic, but my key program since before Pro Tools is Digital Performer, simply because I was used to it first. I was able to keep it all inside of the computer to do time stretching before everyone else had that popularized. I was able to record right into Performer, stretching Toni Braxton's vocals in 1996 to 20 beats per a minute, the way many of the programs work now.”

For Remi, much of it comes down to his keen understanding of music principles. “I might time-stretch a whole record and make the song off of it. You've got to know how to utilize the sample to make a song that makes sense. I put it right into Pro Tools or put it right into Digital Performer or slow it down to speed it up. Sometimes I put it into my SP1200. I can take a sample and make it sound five different ways depending on what I'm trying to get out of the overall production.”

A significant factor into his process is tied to plug-ins, with the UAD-1 card ranking high as his favorite. “I have simulations on my EQs that I have the originals to, but sometimes it's easier when I have plug-ins in front of me. With The UAD and Neve 1073, it's the same way I would do kicks, snares and basses. I like any instrument that gives it a little vintage crunchiness. I do have an EMT plate [reverb] — which is enormous — in my garage, but I used to have the UAD version that gets it close enough and is sonically pure. I like the Apple Audio Units graphic equalizer that allows it to poke out certain frequencies and allows certain instruments to wrap around.”

Remi was instrumental in the sound of Britain's chanteuse Ms. Dynamite, an artist that in turn inspired a young Amy Winehouse. Remi worked with Winehouse on both her first and second albums, Frank (Island, 2003) and Back to Black (Republic, 2006), influenced by the likes of the Shangri-Las and Sam Cooke. Winehouse's Back to Black was recorded in Remi's living room with some wires running up to the bedroom. “The songs were twisted around that format in the same tempo and were lyrically all the same,” he says. “What pulls the album together is Amy's confidence and what she wanted to hear.” He used tricks of the trade to manipulate the snare sound that gives it the early '60s feel. “A large part of it was my engineer Frank ‘Esoes'' Socorro twisting knobs.” But Remi added a few classic key touches. He studied Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd's DVDs, learning his recording philosophy, and he spoke with former Stax sound engineer Jim Gaines about ways to achieve the crackly vintage sound.

“It came down to putting a [Neumann] U 87 microphone on a snare right in between the hi-hats,” he says, “pretty much letting hi-hats and snare go into one better mic rather than two mics where you're trying to separate the sound. He recorded the songs in one room and moved the mics around.” Remi's used a similar process with '70s dub music on a record for Spragga Benz, a reggae style he's branded “luv-a-dub.”

WHAT'S THE SCORE?

For the Rush Hour 3 track, “Less Than an Hour,” Remi was fortunate enough to work with famed film-score composer Lalo Schifrin. “It started because Brett Ratner, the director of the Rush Hour movies, told me he went to Lalo Schifrin, who did Mission Impossible, Dirty Harry and Bruce Lee,” he says. Remi listened to Schifrin's Enter the Dragon and re-created the glass slides using electric guitar. “I was able to get Lalo to write strings and a full arrangement on top of that,” Remi says. “Then I programmed the drumbeat in the pattern I wanted on the MPC4000. And my Remo [drum kit] has half-size parts and all the toms in a small booth, so I recorded it through the Neve 1073 EQ with the preamps on it. I got the drums down and played the piano on a Motif and pulled the bell sound off a Triton to make it sound like glass scrapes.” Finishing strings were laid down with his blue-and-white violin.

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Then came time to collaborate with the orchestra — a first for Remi. “We did that at Sony on the Barbra Streisand Soundstage.” After mixing in Pro Tools and with the SSL console, he sent an MP3 of the track to Cee-Lo while Nas recorded on a Sony C800G mic at the Atlantis studio. Nas and Cee-Lo instinctively composed topical lyrical content. “They wrote their parts without hearing each other,” Remi says. “Then I edited it all back together. There's a lot going on back in the track.”

With longtime collaborator Nas, the work was natural once Remi had the beat and feel down. “He likes the [Sony] C800G mic going through an Avalon preamp on 95 percent of his records.” For singers, Remi prefers a Neumann U 47 because it gives him more space to layer around the vocals. “I feel like the Neumann captures from the top of your head to your stomach all the way around your head. I like to not have to reproduce the sound with electronic reverbs. For vocalists, you can do a lot of processing, so I avoid artists who can't sing. Every track is totally different, and I use different vocal techniques. Some things are dry, and verses have a certain energy, and the chorus is bigger and spread out over strings.”

The production process keeps Remi motivated, and he maintains an intense composition schedule. This year alone he has produced songs for Busta Rhymes, David Sean, Nick Harrison, Joelle Ortiz, Leona Lewis, Chrisette Michele, Nina Skye, Money Mark, Bobby Ronson, I-20 and his own groups Champagne Flute and Crunkadelic.

He's indeed a producer's producer, enchanted by the notion of taking an artist and drawing out their best qualities and vision, and is always looking out for new artists and challenges. “I'm a big believer that it's not the machine, it's the monkey,” Remi says. “It doesn't make a difference what you use; it's what's in your brain. I got past having a beat ego a long time ago. It's based on the emotion I'm trying to pull out of the record and how I'm trying to showcase that artist. The beat is secondary. The key is still to know exactly what I'm looking for and to keep learning.”

THE INSTRUMENT ZOO

Computers, DAW, recording hardware, interfaces

Apple G5 (4), G4 (2), iBook (2)
Apogee Big Ben Master Digital Clock,
Rosetta 800 AD/DA Converter
Digidesign 192 I/O, Digi 002, Digi Sync I/O,
Pro Tools|HD3 systems (2)
HHB CDR-800 CD burner
MOTU 24 I/O (2), 2408, Digital Timepiece,
HD192, MIDI Timepiece, MIDI Timepiece II,
MIDI Timepiece AV interfaces
Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder
Tascam DA-88 and DA-98 (2) digital 8-track
recorders, MD301 MKII MiniDisc recorder

Consoles/mixers

Mackie Onyx 1620
SSL 6000E
Yamaha DM2000

Mics

AKG C 451 E
Audix Fusion Drum Mic Pack
Neumann U 47, U 87
Oktava MK-012 (2)
RCA 44BX (3), 77 Type DX (2)
Røde NT2
Royer Labs SF24
Sennheiser MD 421 (2)
Sony C800G

Mic preamps

Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ (2)
Daking 5227 (2)
Neve 1073 (8)

EQs

API 550 (2), 550A (2), 560 (4), 560A
Audio Arts 4200A
Avalon AD2055
Lang PEQ-2
Manley Enhanced Pultec EQP-1A
Orban parametric EQ
Pultec EQH-2 (3), HLF-3, MEQ-5 (2)
Tubetech PE1A
White Instruments 4700 (2)

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Dynamics

dbx 160 (4), 902 (2), 929 (2)
Drawmer DS201 (3)
Behringer Composer
Kepex Compressor (4)
Neve stereo compressor
Teletronix LA-2A
Universal Audio 1176
Urei 1176

Signal processors

BBE 802 Sonic Maximizer
Behringer Edison EX1 (2)
dbx 100, 500 Subharmonic Synths
Dolby System 361 (2)
Orban 536A DeEsser
SPL Vitalizer
TC Electronic 1210 Spatial Expander

Plug-ins

Universal Audio UAD-1 Project Pak (2)
Waves Platinum bundle

Effects processors

AD&R Panscan panner
AKG BX5, BX20 spring reverb units
Alesis MidiVerb (2) multi-effects processor
Boss DE-200 Digital Delay
Dytronics CS-5 Chorus
EMT 140 plate reverb (2)
Korg AM8000R multi-effects, DL8000R delay
Line 6 Bass POD, DL4 Delay Modeler,
Echo Pro (2), POD ProLeslie 122 organ speaker
Lexicon 480L, PCM 42 (2), PCM 70
MXR Pitch Transposer
Pioneer SR202, SR303 reverbs
Quantec QRS reverb
Roland Dimension D SDD-320, Chorus Echo SRE-555(2), GP-8
Sansui RA-500 reverb amp
Ursa Major SST-282 reverb
Voce Spin rotary speaker simulator
Yamaha Rev 7 reverb
Zoom 1204 Studio Effects Processor (3)

Keyboards, synths, controllers, modules

Casio CZ-101, FZ-10M, FZ-20M, VS-10M
Casiotone MT-40
E-mu Proteus/1
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Hammond C3 organ
Kawai XD-5
Korg KP-30, KPR-77, M1, MicroKorg, microX,
MS-2000R, Poly-800, TR-Rack, Triton Rack
M-Audio Ozone MIDI keyboard
Midiman Keystation 61 MIDI keyboard
Moog Prodigy, Source
Novation Superstation
Oberheim Matrix 6R, Matrix 1000
Optigan organ
Roland D-50, JP-8080, Juno-6, Juno-106,
JV-880, JV-2080, MKS-50, SH-201, SVC-350
Studio Electronics SE1
Studiologic SL-990 keyboard controller
Univox Jazzman, Mini-Korg
Voce electric piano (2)
Wurlitzer 200A electric piano
Yamaha Baby Grand, CS01, DX7, DX100,
Motif ES6 (2), Motif Rack, Portasound
MK100, TX802 (2)

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Samplers, drum machines, sequencers, turntables, DJ mixer

Akai MPC2000XL (2), MPC4000 (3), S950
samplers/drum machines
Alesis MMT-8 MIDI sequencer
Denon DN-C630 turntable
E-mu SP1200 sampler/drum machine
Ensoniq ASR-10, ESQ-1 samplers
Linn Electronics LinnDrum drum machine
Maestro Rhythm King MRK-1
Oberheim DX drum machine
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Roland CompuRhythm drum machine, HPD-15
HandSonic Percussion Controller, S760
sampler, VP-9000 VariPhrase Processor
Stanton SMX-201 DJ mixer
Technics SL-1210MK2 turntable
Yamaha MR10, RX5 drum machines

Bass guitars, guitars, amps

Ampeg B-15N bass amp
C. Nieves acoustic guitar
Danelectro Baritone, U2 electric guitars
Fender BXR-25 bass amp, Squier BP-15 bass
amp, Squier P-Bass, Stratocaster guitar
Kydd upright bass
Hanez acoustic guitar
Taylor 301-M-GB baby acoustic guitar

Drums

Drumworks snare
Pacific drum kit (kick, snare, high/mid/low toms)
Pearl Piccolo snare
Premier snares (2)
Remo Legero small drum kit (kick, snare,
high/mid/low toms)
Sabian B8 14“/36 cm hi-hat, B8 16“/41 cm thin
crash, B8 20“/51 cm ride, 14“/36 cm crash
Zildjian 20“/51 ride

Monitors, subwoofers, amps

Bryston 4B amp
BSS FDS-334 Minidrive loudspeaker
management system
Crown XLS 202 amp
Mackie HR824 monitors
M-Audio Studiophiles monitors
Tannoy PS350B subwoofer, System 1200
monitors
Tapco SW10 subwoofer
Yamaha NS10M monitors (4)